Lanterns: The Harvest Festival Review

andysmAndrew: The great harvest is complete.  It is a time to rest and rejoice.  In celebration, we artisans have been tasked with adding beauty to the palace lake by floating myriad colored lanterns in the serene waters.  Who among us will produce the most beautiful display and therefore win the greatest honor?  Let’s find out as we play Lanterns: The Harvest Festival!

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Everything about this game is beautiful, box art included.

 

Lanterns: The Harvest Festival is a beautiful abstract tile-laying game for 2-4 players designed by Christopher Chung and published by Foxtrot Games and Renegade Game Studios.  It’s designed to play within about 30 minutes, and based on our experiences, that’s a solid estimate.

The components in Lanterns are very nice, from the lovely little lantern cards to the tiny wooden favor tokens, to the superfluous but adorable starting player marker (it’s a tiny boat).  The centerpiece components are the lake tiles, which you will, in turns, lay into the middle of the play area to form an ever-expanding shared tableau of beautifully colored squares.  The game is colorful and bright (fittingly), and its serene appearance well matches the somewhat relaxed tone which the game usually takes.

I say usually because there are tiny moments in any game of Lanterns which set my nerves on edge in the best way.

I’ll explain.

Lantern cards, Dedication tiles, and Favor tokens, all set and ready to go
Lantern cards, Dedication tiles, and Favor tokens, all set and ready to go

Gameplay in Lanterns works like this.  Each player’s turn is divided into 3 parts, with only the 3rd being obligatory.  First, players can exchange favor tokens for lantern cards, 2-1, and only once per turn.  Then they can make a single ‘dedication’, which is Lanterns’ term for ‘purchase victory points’ by turning in sets of lantern cards – either 4 of a kind, 3 pair, or one each of the seven available colors.

Dedications get stacked, highest to lowest. The sooner purchased, the better.
Dedications get stacked, highest to lowest. The sooner purchased, the better.

Each dedication type gets less and less valuable every time one is purchased, meaning that the sooner one makes their purchases, the more points one will receive.  It also means that it doesn’t pay to chase down the same dedication type that your opponents are setting up to purchase, occasionally forcing you to change strategies mid-stream.

The final, compulsory part of a turn in Lanterns is laying a lake tile from your hand of 3 into the lake, thereby expanding the tableau, and it is here that the true genius of Lanterns reveals itself.

When you place a tile, its orientation and placement are up to you, so long as it connects orthogonally to at least one existing lake tile.  By matching a side to an existing tile’s color, you get a lantern card of that color.  If you matched a tile that contains a platform, then you get a favor token to be used on a later turn.

 

Finally, each player gets a lantern card of the color facing them.  So if you place this tile like so:

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The player sitting across from you gets a purple card, the player to your left gets an orange, the player to your right gets a white, and you get a red, regardless of what other cards you may have received by matching your new tile to the board.

This is brilliant for several reasons.  Firstly, it means that there are no ‘wasted’ turns; even when your opponent is placing a tile, your own cards, and therefor scoring options, are being affected (though always positively – there is no forced card loss).

Secondly, and much more importantly, it means that when you are placing a tile, you are choosing not only what lantern cards you will receive, but also what each of your opponents will gain, and that means you need to pay close attention to what it looks like they might be setting up to score (this is possible because what lantern cards a player has gathered is open information).  So, someone’s one white card away from a ‘one of each’ dedication?  Better do everything you can to avoid handing them the card they need!  But is it worth depriving yourself of a badly needed bonus card to do so?  Your call!

As the lake grows, so to do your options...as well as those of your opponents.
As the lake grows, so to do your options…as well as those of your opponents.

This mechanic adds a very unique, very engaging element of indirect interaction without which Lanterns would be less than half the game it is.  By tying every player’s tile placement to every player’s card gain, Lanterns manages to be at once casual and strategic, tactical and relaxed.  There are stretches of truly easy gameplay punctuated by moments when you suddenly realize you’re in danger of handing a boatload of points to a competitor, or that you’ve been given a chance at scoring in a way you didn’t anticipate being possible.

The result is an extremely satisfying game that lives somewhere between light and middle-weight.

Lanterns is also stunningly well-balanced.  In all the games we’ve played, regardless of the number of players, the scores have been either nearly or exactly tied, with number of favor tokens or lantern cards being the tie-breaker.  That speaks of a fine-tuned mechanism which prevents players from running away with the lead and thereby making every turn feel significant.  Blow-out victories will probably be blessedly rare in this game.

Lanterns’ theme is beautiful and serene, but it is entirely superfluous.  This is an abstract set collection game, pure and simple.  However, while we are absolute suckers for good theming in games, making something this abstract pretty and inviting feels extremely appropriate, and the game loses nothing from its abstract nature.  The theme is pasted on, but it’s a good pasting job, and adds a pleasantness which benefits the gameplay experience, if not the gameplay itself.

Each tile is unique, offering different opportunities and limitless replay value.
Each tile is unique, offering different opportunities and limitless replay value.

Lanterns: The Harvest Festival is a fantastic mid-weight game.  It can have moments of head-scratching, but it’s hardly a brain-burner.  It’s pretty enough to keep the eye occupied and balanced enough to play as well with 2 as it does with 4 (though we actually found that the higher player count made the game even more enjoyable).

If you want to pick up Foxtrot’s excellent game, you can grab it here!

(Thanks to Foxtrot for sending us a copy of Lanterns to review.  Their generosity didn’t influence our review any – we loved it all on our own, thank you very much.)

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